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TalkBack / A Monster's Expedition (Switch) Review
« on: August 26, 2021, 08:08:00 AM »

The age of men is over. The age of monsters is now.

Like most media, video games are a “right place, right time” thing.  For myself, spare time has dwindled as my children get older and it gets eaten up by kids’ sports and work.  I’ve come to appreciate games that respect your time, give you small, achievable goals, and plop you into a well developed world.  A Monster’s Expedition charmed and delighted me with how well it fit that mold of what I’ve been looking for.

A Monster’s Expedition consists of bite-sized puzzles, each on individual islands.  The goal is to create a path for your monster to cross by knocking a tree down and pushing the log where it’ll create a bridge to the next island; at least that’s how it starts.  As you progress, the puzzles become harder, and the end goal changes—still to reach the next island, but by different configurations of those fallen trees.  Eventually you’ll run into islands with a cylindrical, trash can-looking item.  These bins let you fast travel to different islands with the same landmarks.  

The puzzles are airtight and islands slight, meaning there really is only one solution to each island.  Different landmarks like rocks and tree stumps often play into the solution, having to roll, flip over, or in the case of larger logs, shove them into the water to bridge the gap.  Because of the micro nature of each puzzle, it sets up small little victories each time you reach the solution.  It’s a great cascading effect where each win made me want to try just one more, and because of how brief they are and the way it saves your progress at the island, this design allowed me to stop when I got stuck and pick up when I left off to try again.

Even better is how A Monster’s Expedition leverages the world built within and music to accent the experience.  Visually, it isn’t an ultra-detailed world, but that simplified, colorful style serves it well by eliminating distractions to draw focus to the puzzles themselves.  They’ve done a wonderful job on the music front—a minimalistic, calming sound track—and it does my favorite thing of having every move you make play a small musical note.  Another great choice is the small exhibits scattered across the land that are dedicated to learning about human civilization.  An example of this charming bit of world building is a line queue, whose plaque suggests humans lined up in them for the pure fun of it.

There’s something really special about a well-crafted puzzle game.  The difficulty has to be just right—taking mental equity to solve but not so easy as to be dull.  There needs to be a clear logic to the puzzles throughout that acts as a foundation for each sequential one to build off of.  What elevates it even further is world building and music design that sews it up into a tight, cohesive experience.  A Monster's Expedition’s quick hits of small puzzles passes all of those criteria with flying colors, and you owe it to yourself to give it a look.

TalkBack / Arietta of Spirits (Switch) Review
« on: August 20, 2021, 10:24:48 AM »

A charming first chapter of a child’s spiritual awakening

Something can be said for the value of brevity.  As I’ve gotten older with more family responsibilities, it’s constrained my free time to a degree in which time for video games, my favorite pastime, has been shaved down to a scant amount.  Arietta of Spirits, the first release from Red Art Games, has taken this tact with a scaled down, personal story of a young girl awakening her true nature and going on a journey of discovery.  It’s a good example of how a micro-focused game and narrative can still make for a fulfilling experience.

Arietta is a young girl who, with her parents, is visiting her grandmother’s cabin for the first time since her passing. Her mother is distraught at not being able to find the grandmother’s old ring.  When Arietta finds it, the ring becomes a catalyst to meeting a spirit guide named Arco and becoming a Bound—people who can control energy with the ability to communicate with the living and the dead.  She learns from Arco that the Bound will communicate with spirits who have lingered in the land of the living and help them sort out their unfinished business so they can move onto the afterlife.  Through her journey, she encounters a few such spirits who she tries to help move on, while also uncovering a broader mystery of an old mine on the island.

Arietta herself is a very charming character: kind and considerate to everyone and a natural helper.  Her journey of becoming a Bound, coming into her own, and investigating the secrets of the island is small in scope, and that ethos is seen throughout, whether looking at other characters or the island itself.  Unfortunately, this means the few characters who exist outside of Arietta are a bit one-note.  Arco exists almost solely as a story explainer.  The parents are barely there, and the few lost souls you encounter have little in the way of personality.  The island itself has a limited variety of locales and environments, which makes the world feel small and empty.  Maybe that was intentional, but it leads to a monotone and vacant experience.

Combat with dark spirits is fairly simple.  Arietta is able to imbue spiritual energy into a wooden sword to make a powerful weapon, and use spirit energy from her grandmother’s ring as a medium to create a shield bubble that temporarily protects from all damage before needing to recharge.  She starts dealing with mostly wasps but as the game progresses, you’ll encounter  varied monsters who attack by shooting projectiles, rushing you, and presenting other patterns.  These typical fights feel fine to start, but become mundane by the end.

The boss battles are where the combat really shines.  Each one has distinct attack patterns, and feels unique in how they need to be approached and dispatched.  They all have a design and character all of their own without having to speak a word, somehow having more of a personality than a lot of the main cast of characters.  It’s a real highlight and testament to just how much interesting bosses can elevate the experience.

The world of Arietta of spirits is colorful, with a pixel art style that’s not unique but has a healthy amount of color gradients to give everything a nice sense of depth. Arietta herself has hair that bobs with each step, a very cute detail that helps keep her from looking static while she moves.  When speaking, characters have a larger profile shown, which gives them a much more detailed picture and displays emotions visibly.  While the visuals are given good attention, I found the music a bit lacking.  It’s pleasant but unmemorable; a more dynamic soundtrack could have really amped up the exciting moments.

In essence, Arietta of Spirits plays out like a pleasant introduction and first chapter of a larger story yet untold.  It has a protagonist who is easy to root for and the framework for development into a larger scope story, broader cast of characters, and a larger variety of combat tools that this game currently lacks.  Arietta of Spirits keeps those issues from becoming more glaring thanks to a brisk game length, but I hope her next adventure is a tad more, well, adventurous.

TalkBack / Induction (Switch) Review
« on: August 10, 2021, 09:11:04 AM »

These puzzles hurt so good.

Puzzle games are my siren singing me toward rocky shores; each time they catch my interest, I end up biting off more than I can chew and become overwhelmed with how out of my depth I am.  Once again I find myself veering my ship toward disaster as I play Induction, a mind bending series of puzzles created by independent developer Bryan Gale.  His freshman outing is a refreshingly minimalist experience with a healthy dose of challenge.

Induction on its face is simple: you control a block by rolling it across a series of platforms or steps to get from start to finish.  Moveable cylinders act as switches, predominantly in order to make platforms appear or disappear.  What adds depth is a time loop or repetition mechanic.  At the push of a button, a different color box appears and follows the path you originally tread with the first box, creating almost a shadow that’ll not only repeats the distance but also the pauses or mistakes you made.  Not only that, but switches, collapsable tiles, and bridges reset so that mirror image can complete all the steps you did.  During that time, your original box is able to freely move around.

The puzzles are all about placement and setting up specific patterns of movement that will activate the right sequence to open the path to the end goal.  An early level has two sets of bridges, the first one visible and the second one with a gap.  There's one cylinder which upon pushing it into a matching switch will swap that bridge so the first one is now gone and the second one appears, but now you have no path to get to the second one.  The solution involves not only moving that cylinder into the right switch, but also allowing enough time during your original box’s sequencing to enable you to reach the second bridge before that switch is flipped.

A common refrain in my household is telling my son if he’s getting frustrated at a game that he should take a break and come back to it.  I had to take my own advice more than once during my time with Induction.  This game can be incredibly challenging at times if you’re not adept at logic puzzles.  When I got stumped, I found myself going back through completed puzzles to re-learn the logic like a student going back through their notes before a pop quiz.  Luckily, when I finally hit that lightbulb moment, I got an unbridled sense of joy/accomplishment.

There is beauty in simplicity, and the audiovisual design has it in spades.  The levels are constructed of 3D cubes and rectangular shapes with similar color tones.  For example, the level might have a tone of purple; the top of the shapes might be dark purple while the sides would be light, adding a nice shader effect.  The cube you move is one color, and then when you engage the shadow block it’ll appear in a bubble the same hue as the new block that appears.  Music is all ambient noise, with low persistent hums and fluttering sounds of chimes.  The block itself also makes a really satisfying “dink dink dink” noise with each movement on the board.  

Despite its hair-pulling moments, Induction really is a stellar example of taking a simple concept, building upon it incrementally through each level, and pumping your fist in the air or jumping for joy with each tall hurdle you’re able to leap over.  Coupled with that minimalist style, you’ll find that the juice is worth the squeeze.  If you are a fan of puzzle games and have patience, Induction has plenty to offer.

TalkBack / Boomerang X (Switch) Review
« on: July 19, 2021, 06:25:54 AM »

Not really a boomerang, but I kept coming back.

I’ve gotten to a point where when I see the Devolver Digital logo on a game, I know it’s going to be an interesting experience at its worst and a memorable one at its best.  Outside of their surreal, Adult Swim-like E3 presentations, they have a penchant for finding unique indies that have a compelling hook or tone.  Boomerang X is no different—clocking in at about four hours, the high octane first person boomerang-er (yes, we’re coining that term here) is an example of how cryptic storytelling can help the mundane feel fresh and inventive.

That’s not to say the gameplay itself is stale.  Your nameless protagonist starts with a 4-pointed star that acts like a boomerang and returns to the hand shortly after hurling it toward enemies.  The star is effective but has short range, so in some areas you’ll end up getting close and personal with enemies.  Walking is slow, but a jump that catapults you forward gives just enough mobility to start.  Each level is a room with waves of floating enemies, many reminiscent of those tentacled robots from the Matrix with an ink drip style.  To beat the waves, there are specific monsters with a yellow circle above their head that need to be downed; this does not require defeating all enemies.  Between those levels are chalices that increase hit points and grant new abilities that you must master before the next room opens for you.  

Those abilities become more critical to master in the next zone.  Early on, there will be the ability to snap back the star quicker, then a teleport that lets you blink jump in the direction the boomerang has been flung.  Later abilities veer on the side of combat options, from a bullet-time slow down and attacks that let you shoot a shotgun-like blast, to a laser that acts like a sniper rifle when you hit enough enemies in one shot.  Starting out you’ll feel a bit sloppy with timing and coordination, but in later zones these tools turn you into a high flying, versatile agent of death.  The aerial moveset is similar to a game like Gravity Rush where the unwieldiness starting out could be discouraging, but the experience of mastering the tools and deftly destroying your opponents feels gratifying in ways kill-room based games often don’t.

The world of Boomerang X is enigmatic and fascinating.  You’re washed ashore with no real idea of what’s happened.  Throughout the world are villages and old artifacts of a civilization gone. A lone millipede-like creature left to give brief history lessons of a people who cursed themselves to an end through searching for a particular artifact.  You move between levels through a teleportation door leading to a circular room with an open sky; an ephemeral trail tells you to hit strings along the way to form a basic set of tones before dumping you back into the depths of a new level.  There’s little to no audio beyond the effects of your boomerang or abilities in battle.  Still, there’s just something that speaks to me about trying to follow little threads to build a larger narrative, and this fits the bill nicely.

There’s really very little to complain about with Boomerang X, but here’s a handful of forewarnings.  On Switch, there’s some slowdown in more populated zones, which threw off my timing.  While the monsters are varied in shape and strategy, they all share that same dripping black ink look, so don’t expect a diverse range of color here.  Finally, the difficulty did become a beat-my-head-against-the-wall struggle near the end, so it could take some persistence and patience if you were a bit slower to adopt the new abilities beforehand.

Boomerang X is a textbook example of short and sweet.  It’s a bite-sized experience that rewards persistence with a vague, mysterious narrative, dynamic combat, challenging enemies, and so much satisfaction when you squeeze out a victory in the last wave.  I had to test my mettle and tolerate a bit of slowdown, but Boomerang X is one of the best indies I've played this year.

TalkBack / Weaving Tides (Switch) Review
« on: June 23, 2021, 07:04:30 AM »

I love Wicker Basket: The Game

I had the pleasure of playing an early beta build of Weaving Tides last year, and I knew within moments it’d be something special.  This isometric game with a story about the meaning of family is filled to the brim with endearing characters, a unique backdrop, pleasant music, and a really neat hook.  Developer Follow the Feathers has hit the mark on their freshman outing.

You are Tass, a young orphan boy who was adopted as a child by a Weaver, which is basically a flying manta ray.  Tass has always wanted to know who his biological parents are, and his adoptive parent Kilim reluctantly agrees to schauffer their journey.  Along the way, they’ll encounter a community of seers and other weavers with distinct personalities who have relationships with them.  The world of Weaving Tides is outright whimsical.  Most of the ground is built of a wicker basket mesh; flora and fauna are lush.  It’s just a really well developed environment that lends itself well to the game.

The big draw to me was always the weaving.  That wicker basket turf will regularly have swatches removed or missing.  Your weaver can bob up and down as they glide through it, and the ribbon tied to their tail will close the gap as you criss cross.  It’s really a chill, meditative experience if you’re like me and take pleasure in fixing things or closing gaps.  Each time you close an empty patch, a currency is spit out that can be used to purchase upgrades in the form of equippable patches, and these boost stats and abilities or yield optional tail patterns.

Surprisingly, while the weaving is zen, it is only a small piece of what makes the gameplay great.  I was surprised by how well the combat works, too.  Your Weaver comes with a dash, a special weaving move, and the tail you use to fill patches.  Often, a quick dash to stun the enemy and dipping up and over them is enough to defeat them.  In addition, I was surprised by just how varied the enemy types were. They start as pretty basic fodder but then develop into more tricky ones that have to be timed out properly.  Some you’ll need to drag one out of a fox hole, while others will need to be dodged and an appendage pulled out, but once you learn the patterns you’ll be as smooth as butter in dispatching them.  Looking for boss battles?  You got ‘em!  Similar to basic enemies, the boss fights are distinct, and while challenging can be overcome once their patterns are learned.

I feel like a TV infomercial pitchman because wait, there’s more!  Puzzles bookend different segments of the world.  They start as simply as using your ribbon to dip in and out of rings to match a pattern but evolve into deeper challenges and tweaks that complicate things, like sheep that’ll gobble up your threads.  It’s been a while since I’ve been stumped, but I had to walk away and come back a handful of times to give my brain a break and get a fresh perspective.

I can’t sing Weaving Tides’ praises high enough.  The world is vibrant and colorful, and the characters have distinct personalities and relationships that feel genuine.  Dipping up and down to close those weave gaps is one of the most meditative experiences I’ve had this year, and it’s only one small piece of the gameplay pie that’s chock full of delicious combat filling.  Weaving Tides is a treat, one to share with friends and make room for seconds.

TalkBack / Miitopia (Switch) Review
« on: June 11, 2021, 07:08:59 AM »

My first RPG is just a scooch too easy

Miitopia is a curious little game.  Originally released on the 3DS in the twilight of its life, the Mii-heroed role playing game has been given a second go-round on Switch.  I had no knowledge of it until now, but was eager to dive in and see if the original release’s less than stellar reviews still held true today.

All across the lands, the evil Dark Lord has stolen the Mii townspeople’s faces, whisking them away and plugging them into big baddies.  As the hero, your job is to travel across the land to rescue their visages and defeat the Dark Lord.  At the start of the game (and several points throughout the story), you get the chance to give each character their own names and customize their Miis.  

Mii making is the most fun part of Miitopia.  My family sat together, and for over an hour went through each character making wacky faces and giving them silly names to some while trying to make family members with others.  You even get to make the face and give a name to the evil dark lord!  Out in the world, you get the option to put additional wigs or makeup on any team member, with various color and accessory options.  There’s just a lot of opportunity for hilarity with how many options and opportunities to make characters of your own creation.

If the mii tools are robust, then the rest of Miitopia is incredibly shallow.  You have no active control in traipsing along the overworld, instead dotted lines that act as individual levels that are automated walking scenes.  In these sequences, you’ll encounter battles, chests, and other landmarks along the way.  Battles are turn-based, but the only character you control is the main one.  Other teammates are autonomous, choosing their own attacks or item usage.  If you think that’s too complicated, Miitopia offers an auto battle option, so you don’t even have to play it.  Frankly, given how simplified the battles are, I have had it on auto battle since I got past the two hour mark.

That baby pool depth is disappointing because there really are some neat systems at play.  Inns between exploration have several rooms in which you place teammates.  Sharing rooms or going on outings payable by tickets increases a friendship level that gives extra team-up perks in battle.  Mini games like a roulette wheel and a rock-paper-scissors game give chances to win extra perks.  The little vignettes shown when you send two of them to an outing are super cute.  They can even get jealous of each other, get in fights, and can hold grudges that cause debuffs in battle.  Even with being on autobattle, there is some fun to be had tinkering with the relationship system and juggling which room teammates share.

The 800 lb gorilla in the room for Miitopia is the asking price.  While I understand Nintendo’s stance of not devaluing their software, it’s so hard to justify unless you were a diehard fan of the 3DS one and want it on a modern system.  Even if you’re looking for a relaxing, no hassle entry into role playing games for you or your children, that price tag is prohibitively expensive.

My nine year old son loves Miitopia.  He’s played it for almost as many hours as I have and I suspect he won’t be stopping anytime soon.  I haven’t hit those same highs he has.  The core battle system is too thin, and the activities and charming character interactions aren’t enough to paper over that problem.  This is the most robust mii maker, but it’s all at a price that’s downright terrible.  I wanted to like Miitopia more than I did, but it’s more like a Mii-nopia.

TalkBack / Rogue Heroes: Ruins of Tasos (Switch) Review
« on: May 05, 2021, 08:44:00 AM »

A Legendary roguelike that links to the past

After years of going through a Golden Corral buffet line of roguelikes that either used the randomized structure to pad length, didn’t understand what fundamentally makes the genre great, or were legitimately great but couldn’t capture my attention, I found the perfect fit.  Rogue Heroes: Ruins of Tasos is a dream for anyone with affection for classic 2D Legend of Zelda.  After playing the Steam demo, I knew I’d like it, but I didn’t expect how much it would resonate with me.

Rogue Heroes deftly handles a mish-mash of different systems, but its first focus is top-down dungeon crawling.  After selecting an outfit color, the nameless hero wakes from an empty house and makes their way to the first temple.  Dungeons are randomly generated in that each has a list of rooms that are shuffled around across three floors, ending in a boss battle.  Items like a bow & arrow, magic wands, and hook shots can be procured on site, but those found in the dungeon are made of glass and shatter once the hero falls in battle.  In these dungeons, enemies and chests can spit out gems, the primary currency of Rogue Heroes.  Upon death, a tally of all the gems collected is given and must be spent prior to jumping in again; otherwise, they’ll be lost.  There are also coins, but those are mostly used to open chests that dump out a pile of gems.

The town the hero awakes in starts off undeveloped, but a carpenter will help build it up for the right number of gems.  Most of the buildings end up being spaces where you can spend gems on improvements in attack attributes, health and magic upgrades, and permanent purchases and upgrades of the bows, wands, etc.  There’s also a tailor who lets you purchase alternate classes like a Knight or Mage, which each have their own unique attributes, special abilities, and cute outfits.  I was surprised at how much time I started devoting to development and spending that currency on things that didn’t affect my combat ability.  I had to build out all the real estate for new villagers to live there.  I had to farm vegetables to put on the produce stand.  Buying all the home furnishings even though I won’t use half of them? You betcha!

In between completing dungeons and city planning, your hero will find themselves exploring the overworld, which rivals Link to the Past in terms of scope and things to do.  Quest markers will give you the general direction to go, and you’ll then need to explore that area to find the path to the next dungeon.  Each of these sections houses different terrains and unique tools needed to traverse them and the dungeon in the area.  It’s a nice way to offer some permanence and meaningfulness in the tools for a game that relies on randomization.  

I can’t stress this enough: Rogue Heroes is pure, uncut fun.  The random room tile swaps in dungeons add just enough variety to keep each run fresh while maintaining a semblance of not having to re-learn sections already mastered.  Upgrading abilities and attributes with gems makes your character more noticeably powerful with every run.  While most tools and side weapons aren’t necessary to complete a dungeon, they’re a good assist in tougher combat-focused sections.  The different class options are just different enough where they require meaningfully different combat and puzzle-solving strategies.

If the single player experience is a gratifying upward climb to being a hero, then multiplayer is a beautiful chaos engine.  Up to four players can join up, each with their own profiles, characters, and leveling progression.  The dungeon layout doesn’t change much to accommodate the extra heads, but some puzzles now require cooperation between players to hit switches or push blocks in concert with each other.  Players also get an extra chance at life with altars interspersed throughout that can resurrect a fallen hero, as long as one teammate carries their remains there.  While a hero is dead, they can fly around as ghosts and possess items, which is a fun way to let players stay active.  I sherpa’d my wife and two young sons through the first dungeon.  It was like herding cats, but it was one of my favorite gaming experiences so far this year.

There might be some things that could detract from your experience.  If you’re playing co-op, the camera can sometimes pan out to an extreme degree.  You’re going to see the same puzzles in a dungeon several times because of the roguelike nature, so after the 10th time attempting the dungeon the experience could grow stale for some.  The randomization of tools in dungeons means several of the ones you get won’t be necessary as a puzzle-solving device, so you can’t expect that finely crafted experience inherent in most 2D Zelda games.

None of that could dull my enthusiasm though.  Rogue Heroes: Ruins of Tasos is a beautiful application of a roguelike system with a 2D dungeon crawler format married perfectly to a town-building system and overworld that invites exploration and grinding gems to uncover more things to do outside of combat.  This is a no-brainer for classic Zelda fans or anyone looking for co-op fun, and it’s absolutely been the best gaming experience so far for me in 2021.

TalkBack / Future Aero Racing S Ultra (Switch) Review
« on: April 13, 2021, 07:19:11 AM »

A far cry from what it’s aping.

When it comes to F-Zero, I’m that annoying friend who won’t stop talking about it. Every Nintendo Direct I have fingers crossed for an announcement. I’ve tried to find a futuristic racer that scratched the same itch, but even if they’re good, it’s like getting Burger King when you want McDonalds, a sad facsimile to your true wants and desires. Future Aero Racing S Ultra (yes, that’s its name) is the latest attempt to capture that magic in a bottle.

The most important feature of F-Zerolikes (yes, I’m going there) is a blistering sense of speed. You have to feel like you’re moving so quickly that flying by the seat of your pants is the only way to make it through the track and squeeze out a top three victory.  Pads on the ground boost speed and are spread intermittently through the track, and while the placement doesn’t always flow right, it suits its purpose adequately. This game doesn’t quite hit the mind bending velocity of something like Fast RMX, but it’s somewhere in between that and Mario Kart 200cc, but the feel is right. That fundamental requirement is met.

Unfortunately, it’s everything surrounding it that crumbles. The tracks are punishingly hard. I’m not talking about difficult but attainable, more mean-spirited and cheap. The lowest cup starts right out the gate with a track that has sharp 90-degree turns and narrow corridors that are nearly impossible gauge even with arrow warnings of them coming up. Coupling that with destroyable vehicles is a toxic brew. My vehicle’s health would drain quickly with each hit, and a head-on impact with a wall results in an automatic destruction. While you do respawn afterward, you’ll be so far back in the pack that inching back to a qualifying finish is nearly impossible. Additionally, even in the lowest rank, competing vehicles are zipping by with very few mistakes. This culminates into a painful experience.

The window dressing to the gameplay is a tattered tapestry. The menus are a bit obtuse with some menu options not clearly labeled. The races themselves have this strange mixture of vehicles that are cel shaded and backdrops that aren’t. That in itself isn’t an issue, except the surroundings have a lot of textures that are flat and dated. If the speed was cranked a bit higher, it likely wouldn’t be as noticeable. The music is average techno pop, but there’s one song that makes me cringe like nails on a chalkboard whenever it comes up. Discord between the music and vocalist can work, but this track comes off as some awful rejected circus music.

At its core, Future Aero Racing S Ultra’s problem is that the whole experience is half-baked. A decent sense of speed with maniacal track design and near flawless drivers. Visually inconsistent style that just highlights the problem areas. Music that is in the right genre but is somewhere between lacking and outright horrifying. I had high hopes for Future Aero Racing S Ultra, but instead i’ll be playing more Fast RMX.

TalkBack / Say No! More (Switch) Preview
« on: March 19, 2021, 06:47:10 AM »

Confidence building through denial in its best form

If you're anything like me, you’ve lived most of your life too passively.  Whether through your upbringing, school structure, or an innate desire to follow the rules, you’ve been whittled into a people pleaser.  You don’t want to rock the boat, don’t want to cause a stir, and just want to get through your day to get home and take cover from the outside world.  Maybe you’re a branch waving in the wind, moving wherever the wind may blow. Truth is, people like us need to learn to hold more firm to our beliefs without fear of conflict, and developer Studio Fizbin is here to help us with Say No! More.  Part game, part motivational speech, read on to learn more about this fever dream of fighting office drudgery and a world of Yes Men.

The game starts with an option to choose a pre-set character or create your own.  Of course I created my own—An Albert Einstein looking fellow with a red tie and green vest underneath a pin-striped suit coat, and a short tan skirt.  I even got to choose the type of “No!” my guy said by language (I opted for Italian because I liked how curt it sounded).  After discussing my brand new office job with my housemate (who presumed I can now cover rent with gainful employment), I arrived at the office with a nifty unicorn lunchbox he gave me.  My new boss is basically Michael Scott bumped to eleven—threatening to fire me and the other two interns, then claiming immediately after it’s a joke, stressing that the office is one big happy family.  The other interns lean into saying “yes,” but I can’t yet spit out that one magical word, and then the boss stole my pretty lunchbox!

After being sent to the broom closet-like intern desk, I ran across a tape recorder with a cassette labeled “NO.”  This projected me into another realm where my new spirit guide, a motivational gym coach, shouted new lessons on how to say no!  Armed with the power of no, I could now walk through the office and deny every co-worker seeking to suck up my time.  Levels involved having me automatically running until I ran into an employee wanting me to do their work for them.  Clean the coffee maker?  No!  Take out the garbage?  No!  Tell me to put pants on?  Heck no!  There are varying forms of “no” available, but in this preview we only got a standard no and a cold no, which is a more harsh, icy response.  You can also hold the no button to charge a no so it comes out as a loud blast, making the co-worker pests go flying in the air and causing a ruckus.  Want to really destroy their self confidence?  Laugh at them first to confuse them before giving them a big ol no blast.

Visually, the environment almost reminds me of something akin to Katamari Damacy.  Characters are very rigid and blocky, with faces painted on a smooth flat surface.  Arms and legs move like lego pieces, body movements are simple up and down motions, and emotions are conveyed in a madcap, exaggerated manner that’s very silly.  Despite this simplicity, the office space is detailed with plenty of gradients of color used to add depth to the walls, furniture, and outfits, with a nicely opened-up outdoor space in the second chapter.  The style works because it matches the simple premise and is equally expressive.

Playing the first two chapters of Say No! More left me wanting to say “yes” to more.  The over-the-top expressions coupled with the simplistic graphics and asinine story premise of being on a mission to rescue your lunchbox could make this a lovely experience if it continues to strike the right balance between humor and inspiration.  This spoke to me because I’m a person who has a hard time standing up for themselves at times.  If that’s you too, then this might be worth checking out.

Say No! More will be available on Nintendo Switch April 9th.  A Steam copy was provided for this preview.

TalkBack / Battle Brothers (Switch) Review
« on: March 17, 2021, 09:10:49 AM »

Many a man will be killed for glory

I’m all for tactical RPGs continuing to creep their way onto the Nintendo Switch—give me as many experiences as possible that I can play untethered from my desk and in my hand.  Battle Brothers, which was originally released in 2017 on PC, is the latest offering to find a new home on Nintendo.  This middle ages-themed game touts itself as both dark in tone and tough as nails, so much so that it warns you in the menu to start with beginner difficulty, and it isn’t lying.

While there is no traditional story campaign, Battle Brothers offers a nice selection of different starting scenarios, giving the option to modify difficulty and containing an end-game scenario meant to act as a sort of final encounter.  What the game lacks in overarching story, it more than makes up for in robust narrative-building through character interactions.  The start of each scenario has a healthy bit of text to set the stage of who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish.  New characters you encounter all have dialogue that not only gives direction of where to go, but also provides a glimpse into the kind of person they are.  Because of this, the absence of a larger story doesn’t feel like a meaningful omission.

For your battle brothers to survive the harsh world, as commander you need to master not just conquering opposing militias and orcs, but also travel across long distances between towns and sustain your ranks with diligent resource management.  The overworld map is nicely detailed: the landscape shifting from grasslands to snow covered terrain, and littered with the occasional town, one-off buildings, or enemy encampments.  Your brigade will travel these lands, making contacts within towns and building relationships with them to open up paid contracts to take on, including routing enemies and acting as an escort for traders.  

The battles themselves are very traditional tactical RPG.  Your soldiers and the enemies start off on a field and have a turn order based on who has the highest initiative attribute.  Action points dictate how many move spaces on a hexagonal field units can travel and how many attacks or other actions they can take.  Permadeath is the name of the game here, but unlike a Fire Emblem, it’s an often necessary sacrifice to make it through a grueling battle.  Soldiers are a commodity that gets churned through and replaced as much as food or tools.  After battle, you take the spoils, and survivors can slowly regenerate health over a span of a few in-game days.  Leveling up lets you apply points to attributes like initiative or defense and select a wide array of perks, making those warriors a precious commodity and a painful loss if killed.  

Supplies can be picked up at any town - the Market has food, tools, and some cheap weaponry and armor.  Blacksmiths sell better weaponry, you can purchase armor from armories, and the pubs let you pay for leads to new bounties or buy a round to raise your brothers’ morale.  Need to re-staff your ranks?  Recruits range from wholly inexperienced farm hands to battle-tested potential brothers.  Those recruits each cost a one-time payment as well as a daily salary, and their cost matches their experience.  Your company burns through food daily and tools each time weapons, armor, or shields need repair.    

Unsurprisingly, currency (called crowns) is the driving engine of the systems. To illustrate, I’ll provide a lengthy example.  Imagine your company escapes a battle with only three of the eight soldiers you came with.  You gain 400 crowns for completing the contract, but refilling your supplies eats up half of that.  Replacing the fallen and arming them takes half of your savings, and that is even going budget by recruiting laborers, adorning them with cheap leather tunics, and equipping them with repurposed cleavers and pitchforks instead of weapons proper.  The next contract is only for 140 crowns up front and 200 upon arrival at the next town; you just pray now that it’s uneventful to make up for the last battle’s losses.  I appreciate how transparent and honest those systems and the way its gears churn people into dust, as dour as that might sound.

Battle Brothers has exhibited a clear vision in what it wants to be: a painfully grueling and dark world with a system of commerce that’s equally punishing.  This is a system where crowns make the world go round and everything is replaceable, for a price.  The breadth of dialogue, world-building paragraphs, and light agency in storytelling let you build the world according to what you hear.  It’s a world I want to dive into again and again, even if I know this incarnation will be just as taxing.

TalkBack / Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse (Switch) Review
« on: March 16, 2021, 12:20:00 PM »

Resurrected with a bit more rot.

I didn’t think anyone was clamoring for Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse’s triumphant resurrection from the mid-aughts grave of the original Microsoft Xbox.  The Nintendo direct announcement of this third-person action game was bewildering, and instantly piqued my interest as someone who was tangentially aware of the series but never had the opportunity to play it on its original release.  The re-release is a nice continuation of bringing new life to older games that still have some embers of fandom.

Stubbs is a shade of green, has a gaping wound in his abdomen, wears a suit, and smokes a cigarette.  He comes to life in the city of Punchbowl, Pennsylvania, a retro-futuristic hybrid town where robots take care of every need, like in Wall-E, with a style taken directly from doo-wop.  I’m sure there was some story, but despite completing the game I cannot remember for the life of me anything beyond a string of ten second cutscenes that were madcap and silly.  The whole tone of the game is equally ridiculous: police officers sounding like bumpkins mixed with the crookedness of a cop drama; actual bumpkins that badly exaggerate how they sound; and robot assistants that sound like Rosie the Robot but have the dry humor that comes off like a less cutting Fallout joke.

In the beginning, grabbing victims, eating brains, and swiping with your decaying hand are your only tools.  One of the most joyful moments comes from seeing your victims come back to life as fellow zombies, attacking the living along with you and controlled by your whistle.  As you stagger across malls, police stations, and town squares, humans sustain you by filling meters for special attacks unlocked throughout the game.  These include a spleen-tossing for grenades, a big wind-up fart for an area-of-effect attack, and being able to temporarily possess a human by tossing your severed hand and having it skitter around like Thing from The Addams Family until it can latch on to their head.  They are fun tools to use in an otherwise uncompelling experience.  Stubbs the Zombie feels like a great example of 3D action games of its time: an experience based on a premise (being the zombie terrorizing people), using character to paper over movement that doesn’t feel great and combat that feels imprecise.  

Between the typical combat moments are brief departures into different gameplay types.  One has you driving bouncy-feeling tanks and pot-shotting people with its cannon in movement that feels like a facsimile of the Halo warthog.  Another has you facing off in a disco dance-off that plays like a round of Simon and includes truly magical, mind-bending renditions of popular music of the time including “Earth Angel” performed by Death Cab for Cutie.  All of these scenes are interlaced with a kind of lowbrow humor that sometimes falls flat, while others hit the so-bad-it’s-good territory.

Unsurprisingly, Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse is a product of its time.  A simple third-person action game whose distinctions are chomping on victim’s throats and a riffing off a distinct style of a bygone era.  Comedy evoking flatulence, old/tired stereotypes, and an environment with a classic foundation dipped in futurism do provide occasional dystopian humor.  Whether this is for you depends on how much fondness you have for games of this era.  This is no remaster or remake; it’s a direct port.  For me, the pieces come together just enough to find fun in spite of itself.

TalkBack / Blizzard Arcade Collection (Switch) Review
« on: March 02, 2021, 06:08:15 AM »

A collection of classics that puts its best foot forward.

Compilations are released at varying levels of quality.  The bare minimum has been collections of ports that are little more than the old games crammed into a single package.  The better ones include some options like a rewind feature, save states, or other quality of life features that let a new player experience the classics without the frustration of foregone conventions.  The best re-releases act like a historical document—the games are released in their best form, with those quality-of-life features, and a wealth of special features for the long-time fans.  Thankfully, the Blizzard Arcade Collection is the latter: a love letter to classic titles The Lost Vikings, Rock ‘n Roll Racing, and Blackthorne that all released on the Super NES and Sega Genesis.

The Lost Vikings is a side-scrolling platformer with a unique twist.  You play as three Vikings: Eric the Swift who can run and jump quickly, Baleog the Fierce who can attack with a sword or bow and arrow, and Olaf the Stout who carries a shield that can deflect projectiles as well as make a platform for Eric the Swift to jump on.   Rather than selecting one to play as in each level, you use all three in tandem to solve puzzle and platforming challenges by moving one at a time to stage them in the correct places.  To win each level, all three Vikings must make it to the end point, running through monsters, avoiding lasers, and pressing switches to open the path.  The Lost Vikings is a fun and quirky game that holds up well, with a surprisingly funky soundtrack and characters bursting with personality.

Rock ‘n Roll Racing is like the classic rock or metal take on Ivan "Ironman" Stewart's Super Off Road.  After selecting a car and characters with their own unique attributes, you’ll compete on tracks with hazards against three other racers, all of which have weapons to deploy that refill after each lap.  After completing a race, your place determines how much money is in the purse, which can be spent to upgrade car equipment and improve top speed, acceleration, handling, durability, and weapons.  Each circuit is a series of races long, which after completing will move the competition to a new motif.  The attitude is omnipresent, from the announcer’s commentary, to the Mad Max-ian backdrops, and the surprisingly license-heavy soundtrack (including hits ranging from Bad to the Bone to Red Hot Love), allows the game to maintain a really great cohesive theme throughout.  For my money, Rock ‘n Roll racing is the best title in the collection.

Blackthorne is another 2D platformer that takes itself much more seriously than The Lost Vikings.  The gameplay is closer to something like Oddworld: Abe’s Odyssey—the slow plodding movement, the delayed responsiveness to controller inputs, strange things like needing to put a gun away in order to walk through a door, jumps that feel imprecise, and a cover system that turns into something like peek-a-boo when trying to take down the orcs and other monstrous guards.  It is a particularly challenging game due to the unwieldy controls and the strange level design choices.  There is also a surprisingly large amount of lore and storytelling throughout involving the protagonist Kyle Vlaros’ pursuit of conquest and saving prisoners from the oppressive monster regime.  Environments are dingy and the tone is mature from start to finish.  Blackthorne is more of an acquired taste; if you’re not a fan of the original release, then it’s best to set expectations for what exactly it is before deciding to dive in.

Blizzard deserves high praise for the love this collection has gotten.  Each game not only has the Super NES and Sega Genesis versions (or a 32X version for Blackthorne), but also a definitive edition.  Those definitive editions are aptly named, both enhancing the graphics, improving the sound, and adding features absent from the originals such as improved multiplayer options for The Lost Vikings, a local 4-player versus in Rock ‘n Roll Racing, and an additional map for Blackthorne.  The original releases are great for those who want to play the versions they grew up with and also allow for an interesting compare and contrast between the graphical and music differences in the different versions. Beyond that, however, I’d argue the definitive editions are the most ideal versions to play.  Each of these games have both a save state option not present in the originals (which used passcodes before) as well as a rewind feature, which are welcome additions for the platformers as they can get difficult later on.

Beyond the games themselves, there is a treasure trove of special features.  A healthy dose of concept art, magazine advertising prints, box art renders, character animations, and even photos of the developers’ workplaces had me poking around longer than I expected.  Several video interviews with key creators of these games provide a glimpse into the concepts they were working with, their steps in producing the games, the landscape they were being released in, and how they were unique for their time in Blizzard’s history.  There’s even a space to listen to the game soundtracks, although you unsurprisingly won’t see Rock ‘n Roll Racing there given the circumstances.

The Blizzard Arcade Collection is a product of not only slavish devotion to the original releases, but also a glow up that presents the trio of classic games with its best presentation yet.  The addition of rewind and save states lets newcomers experience them without having to beat their heads against the wall.  Even better, the tome of special features and developer interviews shows a devotion from Blizzard to make this collection a true historical document that too many classic game collections lack.  Even for those who haven’t played the originals, this is a package I’m happy to recommend to anyone.

TalkBack / Curse of the Dead Gods (Switch) Review
« on: February 24, 2021, 06:37:32 AM »

A Hades by any other name

I can’t tell if Curse of the Dead Gods’ timing is flattery or unfortunate, having released briefly after Hades made such a big splash in 2020.  Hades’ initial release was as an early access game in December of 2018, whereas Curse of the Dead Gods’ early access period started in early 2020, and is releasing on February 23.  That said, Passtech Games’ release on Switch is going to draw comparisons because of the similarities between them—both are dungeon crawlers that evoke celestial beings as the story vehicle.

Curse of the Dead Gods leans on that skeletal structure of roguelike dungeon crawler.  You’ll do multiple runs of its ten courses, each with its own unique layout of catacombs full of monsters, traps, and gold that is visually reminiscent of something like The Mummy.  For each round, a branching path gives both a sense of how many rooms need to be completed before the end boss as well as what kind of perks you get by completing the room.  Those include gold, purchasable attributes, alternate weapons, and health rooms.  The individual rooms of a run are a series of hallways and open areas, most of the time hosting a battle.  

The combat foundation is what feels most distinctly like Hades.  Your basic tools are a melee attack, ranged attack, dodge, and parry.  Parrying deflects a monster and makes them briefly vulnerable.  In action, you’ll be chaining together moves and mixing in dodges and parries to create opportunities for dealing damage.  You can collect and swap weapons as you find them, which switches up the play style.  If you don’t want a particular weapon, they can be offered to the gods for gold.  Buffs and health can be gained in the corresponding dungeon rooms, payable with either gold or a blood sacrifice that inflicts curse damage on you.

That curse meter is one distinction that adds a neat twist to the formula.  This meter fills from some enemy attacks, offering a blood sacrifice, or simply passing on to the next room.  Once the meter goes past one hundred, a new curse afflicts you.  These debuffs stick with you for the run, and can range between gold disappearing quickly off the ground to enemy resurrection and trap power-ups.  The feature really helps give the game a nice bit of risk/reward to actions you take.  Just be ready to see your character get cursed over and over and over again.  Additionally, light plays a big part in gameplay.  You carry a torch with you, which both acts as another melee option but also allows you to light fire pits along the way.  Light is your friend; it makes the mostly dark rooms visible.  If you let the light extinguish or stay in the dark, monsters get a power advantage over you.  A neat idea in theory, but things can quickly become fraught with danger if fire pits get broken by enemy attacks and you’re left swinging in the dark.  

Upon completion of an area (likely after several failed attempts), you’re taken back to the level selection hub zone.  Here you can purchase and assign blessings, a purchasable buff that is permanent for as long as it's equipped, unlock weapons that increase the pool that can drop in levels, and choose between different starting weapons before jumping back into the depths.  The audiovisual presentation works well for its premise.  Creepy ambient sounds are heard throughout, which increase in tempo whenever danger is present.  The ancient temple motifs, while fundamentally not much different from each other, feel distinct due to the different color pallets and backdrops they utilize.  If Hades is the high watermark, then this doesn’t reach it, but Curse of the Dead Gods is perfectly fine for what it’s attempting to do.

Curse of the Dead Gods could have easily been an also-ran to solely capitalize on an upcoming release that has a lot of buzz (think Antz to A Bug’s Life).  Instead, I’ve been greeted with a roguelike that, while definitely sharing DNA with other dungeon crawlers, has enough interesting backdrops with a few neat combat ideas to make it its own.  Curse of the Dead Gods’ unique features don’t all hit dead-on, but what’s here is a game that while not as refined is still plenty of fun in its own right.

General Gaming / Re: The Winter of too cold for games! (community event)
« on: February 18, 2021, 03:55:04 PM »
I've dubbed 2021 my year of the backlog, too.  In an effort to save $$ and feel less shame about buying games moving forward, I'm taking a sabbatical on buying anything new until 2022.

All that to say - I like your idea and i'm in.

Nintendo Switch Online Lounge Service / Re: I wanna see the manager!
« on: February 12, 2021, 07:30:46 PM »
This forum software is literally 10 years old now. This is completely unacceptable!

That's called vintage, it increases its value!

TalkBack / Aground (Switch) Review
« on: February 11, 2021, 11:29:50 AM »

Like Dig Dug had a baby with Terraria

It’d be easy to overlook Aground based on its visuals alone.  The muted color palette in the starting areas coupled with the shrunk-down, pixelated characters doesn’t make a great first impression.  The earth underneath that you’ll eventually dig into is an unsurprisingly earthy color that becomes really dull the deeper you go.  But don’t let that fool you; underneath the hood is a mining, crafting, and dungeon crawling exploration game that will win you over if given the chance.  

Aground, at its core, is a game of digging, resource accumulation, and structure building.  Digging underground is as simple as pressing the down button, and your little guy will cut into the soil one block at a time.  Whereas Minecraft is in a 3D space and Terraria has the entire experience as a 2D side scroller, Aground splits the difference by having the above ground segments be side scrolling with digging almost akin to Dig Dug.  Digging uses up stamina that has to be replenished either by eating foods or going to sleep in your hut.  Underneath the ground exist various materials (coal, ore, gold, quartz, and titanium, for example) to pull to the surface, and the act of digging itself slowly grew on me as a calming, meditative experience.  

What do you do with those materials?  Crafting, of course, but Aground does something really smart by not only including a story but using it as a vehicle to dole out different missions along the way.  While I love Minecraft for its sandbox and seemingly limitless build options, the scale of the world and almost requiring a guide for how to build things can be daunting.  The bread-crumbing of missions that have you seeking out new resources to make buildings, farmland, docks, and equipment in Aground acts as a great checkpoint for progress.  Eventually you’ll be making minecarts to dig deeper and quicker, developing workshops to build more durable tools, and constructing a thriving community above ground.

That land development and maintenance quickly becomes the driving force for why you’re collecting resources.  Missions from villagers will have you developing farmland, pig pens, barns, and orchards that passively produce food and crops that can be used either as ingredients to cook into a meal, or directly as restorative items for health and stamina.  You’ll build a space for smelting metals.  Then you’ll help bring about a town market and docks to explore off the island you start on.  Once you get your sea legs and start exploring other communities, the world continually feels so much bigger, imbuing the experience with a sense of wonder: What would I encounter next?

There are some nagging issues I can’t let go without mentioning.  For one, the movement speed is painfully slow.  While this isn’t a problem at the start, as you explore deeper into the ground or across large expanses of the world, it becomes more grating that no run button exists.  Then there’s the combat, something which mostly feels like a nuisance that distracts from the digging around, the game’s bread and butter.  It continued being a chore until I unlocked familiars—a pet companion that can fight on your behalf—but you don’t gain those until later on.  Where the town development feels like a nice break from digging, battling monsters underground just bogs down the spelunking I'd been enjoying.

Aground surprised me with how much I kept wanting to get back to it the more I played.  It won’t win any awards for its visuals and could certainly do well by limiting battling.  That said, it hit the mark with tranquil digging, incentivizing crafting with small goals in its missions, and gradually pushing you along to explore the wider world around your starting grounds.  If you like your crafting but want a guiding hand for your experience, Aground is a good place to start.

TalkBack / Colossus Down (Switch) Review
« on: January 29, 2021, 10:41:15 AM »

Colossally Frustrating

I have to hand it to Mango Protocol, developers behind the attitude-brimmed, brutal murder beat-em-up Colossus Down.  They have quietly built up a small series of games starring Nika—a rageful, violent little girl who wants to destroy everything she doesn’t like.  Through a series of worlds, she and Mechanika (a mecha with cannons for hands and saw arms) go on a destructive tear to take revenge on all the things that annoy her.  They include planned obsolescence, sweet & sugary things, and a cartoonish stand-in for Donald Trump.  

The story itself is a thin thread of rationale to jump from place to place destroying everything that Mika has a grudge against, which happens to be just about anything.  This faint narrative is told through exhausting amounts of dialogue.  Intermission segments between levels had me looking at a panel with Mika’s head floating in the corner going over every conceivable thing they could.  This wasn’t just instructions on how to use attacks or upgrade weapons, but also a tidal wave of off-the-cuff remarks about how stupid some things are, how some things make her so angry, and how she’s the best at everything.  Then at the start of levels, she’ll CONTINUE talking to you for another two minutes.  It’s actually kind of astonishing how well they captured the worst kind of too-edgy-for-me child, but having to tolerate it all has been a bit much.

The gameplay itself is pretty by-the-numbers.  You’ll walk left to right and fight mobs of enemies and avoid traps from start to finish, eventually leading up to a boss at the end of the level.  The bosses are somewhat interesting (though the Trump stand-in was overkill), with distinct appearances that match the level motif and require different pattern memorization.  In addition, each level has some sort of puzzle or alternate section which changes the gameplay up into a different genre.  Your mecha comes with a basic attack, cannon, electrical attack, and a dash.  Later on, you can earn special attacks which burn-up health, represented as a coolant to offset overheating.  

In practice, those decisions feel half-baked.  Puzzle sections are poorly explained, where the order-of-operations needed to complete them are obtuse.  The only exception to this is where Mechanika turns into a rocket-fueled spaceship, transforming the stage into a vertical shoot-em-up.  Enemies come in waves, but all gang up on you at the same time.  This wouldn’t be such a problem, except your hits do not actually stun them.  What results is a game of dashing back and forth to avoid getting mobbed and pot-shotting enemies with attacks to slowly take them down.  On top of that, foes are damage sponges, taking a ton of hits before going down.  The result is a brawler that feels mostly weightless, which is especially disappointing given how big and strong a mecha trampling enemies should feel.  

Beyond this, the coat of paint used to create the individual worlds is pleasant.  The pseudo-anime look suits Nika well, expressions changing dramatically depending on her varying moods of rageful, spiteful, angry, and indifferent.  Levels actually contain a nice variety of locations with diverse color palettes (especially vivid in the sugar plum looking zone), and they all have references to other video games, using plays on words to evoke them.  It can come off as a bit cheesy sometimes, but it’s clear the developers have a love for video games.  Even if the mobs of enemies tend to be samey, I actually do enjoy the character designs and expressiveness of them all; it’s just a shame that the coat of paint wasn’t covering a better game.  

Colossus Down features a grating protagonist going on a childish, fury-fuelled rampage, one with a wide set of levels that don’t have any throughline other than her being inconvenienced.  The neat aesthetic can’t cover for shoddy-feeling combat and ill-instructed puzzle segments that sadly are further bogged-down by an endless stream of blathering by Nika, who has an infinite store of smugness.  With so many great brawlers on Switch old and new that include sound fighting, killer soundtracks, and charming characters and worlds, Colossus Down should stay in the scrap pile.

TalkBack / Mars Horizon (Switch) Review
« on: January 14, 2021, 07:13:19 AM »

RNGround Control to Major Tom

Outer Space exploration is oddly rooted in the past with NASA’s Apollo program, while also quietly pushing toward the future with private ventures like SpaceX and their ongoing rocket testing, teasing future trips to Mars.  In that vein, developer Auroch Digital brings us Mars Horizon: a base management sim where you start as a fledgling space program in the throes of the original space race and push toward launching missions to the red planet.  

At the start, you’re given a selection of space programs to choose from, including the United States, China, the Soviet Union, and a consortium of European Nations.  Each of these selections come with different perks—the United States gets additional support for being first to reach achievements and gets a larger astronaut pool to hire; the Soviet Union is able to hire astronauts at half price and doesn’t face any penalties for failed missions.  After that selection, you’re thrust into a new career as space program director, making decisions to balance scientific progress and public support while being the first space program to reach different mission milestones.  

To do so, you’ll have to navigate base building, investment in research, and launching space missions.  There is a skill-tree like research system broken up into sections of missions, buildings, and vehicles.  Missions need to be unlocked to attempt them, but they may require a specific building built on the base to launch, and the craft may need to have certain boosters or other equipment in order to attempt the mission.  In practice, it means bouncing between the different skill trees to line up upgrades in time to complete critical missions.  

Those missions are divided into two types—milestones and requests.  Milestones are the primary objectives your space agency is trying to reach ahead of your rivals.  Requests are technically optional missions to complete in between milestones.  I say “technically optional” because in truth, the rewards of science research points and public approval are important to keep churning.  The science research dictates how quickly upgrades to the skill tree are unlocked.  Public approval is important to gain approval for more funds.  Those funds finance the spacecraft and base buildings needed to reach the deeper milestones.  

The act of launching spacecraft involves selecting different pieces of ship to assemble the spacecraft.  Some components won’t be allowed on certain missions, and each has a different cost that makes you balance cost versus reliability.  After a few days of building the spacecraft, you then select a day of the week to launch.  Each of these days will show whether or not they’re ideal days, and if a competing agency is planning on launching their own craft.  Upon launch day, weather conditions may reduce likelihood of a successful liftoff, so you can choose between rescheduling or throwing caution to the wind.  Upon successful launch, some missions will also include collecting scientific data in order to orbit back to earth safely for your agency to retrieve.  

Both launching and acquiring scientific data have outcomes based heavily on chance.  Each one has a meter with gradients of color based on a 100% range.  Pre-launch steps can help reduce the percentage chance of failure, but ultimately the game uses RNG to dictate a successful action.  Even when taking every precaution, you’re at the mercy of chance. Spent a bunch of coin on this craft?  Better hope it doesn’t fail the dice roll; otherwise, you’re out the money and time.  Experiments in space don’t get the dice rolls you want?  There goes half of the scientific research points you were hoping for.  A failure here or there is one thing, but too often in my play I’d string together three or more failures at a time, and when the name of the game is speed to market with new spacecraft, you’ll quickly fall behind other nations.  

That said, Mars Horizon is a low barrier to entry space management sim that is easy going enough to be something played while sitting on the couch with a show in the background.  Its systems are light enough to not be overwhelming, and even if they become too much for you, a well-defined tutorial does a good job of holding your hand as you get a grasp of things.  The core problem and one that brings this down from a great game to simply fine is just how little control you get over actual launches.  If there was more agency in that side of things, then this would be a no-brainer recommendation.

TalkBack / Grindstone (Switch) Review
« on: December 31, 2020, 06:04:04 AM »

The legend of Jorj: Slaughter Tracks

Grindstone garnered significant buzz in 2019 as both a great puzzle game and a showcase for the then-new Apple Arcade service.  The battle-focused, color matching game was well suited to phones and tablets because of the touchscreen interface and the bite sized levels that let you take progression at your own pace.  As the viking Jorj, slaying monsters and collecting the spoils is all there really is to the premise, but that’s largely unimportant for the kind of game Grindstone is.

Gameplay is pretty straightforward; each level is a board with tiles across them.  Tiles are populated by enemies of varying colors.  In every turn, you draw a path through lines of same-colored enemies that you can only hit once.  After finishing your line and hitting go, Jorj proceeds to slice through each with his sword and lands on the last tile.  If a long enough chain  is recorded, gems will drop on the ground that can be used in the following turns to let you chain together an additional color enemy.  Some levels also include hazards, breakable wooden boxes and boulders, and powerful enemies that you need to build a high enough chain number before landing on their tile space to cut them down.  If Jorj is set on a tile adjacent to attacking monsters, he loses one of his three hearts.  Levels have win conditions such as killing a set number of enemies or defeating specific monsters, and each level has additional rewards for killing specific enemies or gathering chests that fall at the end.  

In action, it’s a delightful game of sequencing - each turn is best used not just to directly complete the level objective, but setting up your next move to be more effective.  This could be either landing Jorj into an advantageous position to get a ten-plus combo, racking up enough kills to use that chain against big baddies, or making a slight move to avoid attacks from enemies.  Rarely have I found myself in a position that wasn’t of my own making, with each victory a joy and defeats leading to me kicking myself for making a boneheaded move.  At the end of each section there’s a boss which requires even more strategic move-making in order to defeat them and move onto the next zone.  Want an additional challenge?  After the objective is complete, you can delay heading to the exit and try to rack up more rewards, but the difficulty cranks up the longer you linger, adding a nice test of mettle at your choosing.

Like any good roguelike, there is a central hub where Jorj can buy different wares.  A bartender will let you restore health for a price of five gems per heart.  An equipment vendor sells equippable items that can boost movement or attack power.  Go to the lower level, and a bestiary shows all the enemies you’ve encountered, with the promise of a reward if you fill it out completely.  Besides the inn, there is a daily grind - a series of challenges that get more difficult as you progress, but can yield rewards that are helpful in Jorj’s journey.  It’s a nice addition for both the challenge and those rewards.  

This is all wrapped in an expressive, cartoony world that feels reminiscent of something that’d come out of Cartoon Network.  Jorj’s health is displayed in the corner with a profile of him that gets more beat up as he takes damage and expresses rage as he shanks enemies.  Characters are both drawn with heavy lines and various shades of color that make them stand out from the background.  Characters growl, yell, and groan in silly ways that made me laugh several times.  

Grindstone is an example of a game which hits all the right notes and keeps up a quality in gameplay throughout that many struggle to maintain.  The divine gameplay mechanics give a wonderful sense of control in spite of the randomness of how enemies fall, and the inputs of buying equipment or using currency to give temporary boosts gives ample opportunity for improvisation if things don’t go quite your way.  I only wish there were more to play.

TalkBack / Monster Sanctuary (Switch) Review
« on: December 22, 2020, 06:44:44 AM »

Interesting mish-mash of genres that doesn’t equal the sum of its parts.

Indies are at the forefront of creative new ideas, lovingly crafted homages to beloved defunct franchises, and iterative refinements as time marches on.  What drew me to Monster Sanctuary is the mash-up of different genres/gameplay types – a dash of role-playing game, a healthy dose of Pokemon, and a smattering of Metroidvania-like exploration.  In Monster Sanctuary, you play the role of a (totally not Pokemon Trainer) Monster Keeper, a member of a guild who raise spectral familiars to battle them with wild familiars, mutual Keepers, and enemy Keepers throughout its world.

That mish-mash of genres starts off feeling compelling.  Monster Sanctuary starts low effort as you’re introduced to the systems, selecting one of four spectral familiars that have different element strengths/weaknesses (sound familiar)?  Combat is typically a three-versus-three match of monster team vs wild monsters (or when facing-off against other trainers, six-versus-six).  These turn based battles go back and forth with your monsters each having a turn, then the enemy team having their turns.  Each familiar has elemental strengths and weaknesses that are exploitable, attacks that buff friendlies and debuff enemies, and can equip weapons and items to bolster stats like attack, defense, health, crit, and elemental damage.  Each familiar has a skill tree that gets unlocked as they level up.   After each battle, your team is given a rating for how efficiently the opponent was defeated, which affects the quality of loot you’re given.

Another wrinkle that comes from Pokemon is a familiar-catching mechanic.  Rather than having to catch them like Pokemon, they become a reward for completed battles in the form of an egg.  Hatching an egg produces a creature from the team of wild familiars you defeated.  Mercifully, the familiar starts at the same level as the rest of your team, with a pool of abilities to dump into the skill tree that would have been gained from regular leveling to that point.  As you gain more familiars, rather than sending them to an inbox, they sit on a bench from the main six in your team that can be swapped out at will.  They also all each gain experience from battles, so no worries about having to swap different familiars in and out if you have a team you’re comfortable with.

The metroidvania side is standard fare with 2D platforming exploration.  After getting an introduction to the world by an NPC, you’re sent along your way to explore, filling in the map along the way.  As expected, you’ll reach roadblocks that need a key to open or ability that hasn’t yet been obtained.  The implementation of this is neat in that each familiar has an inherent ability that can be used in the platforming sections.  For example, a fire familiar might have a fire attack that can burn down structures, one might have a scratch that breaks down walls, another might have an item they can leave on the ground to engage switches to open doors, or flying types can carry you a little farther across empty stretches.  It’s a fresh way to marry the capture mechanics with exploration.

The problem is that each of the individual pieces, while sound, are unremarkable.  I felt like I was able to break the combat difficulty when I chose to lean heavily into status effect attacks and crit damage increases.  Each match began with me attacking enemies with status effects that chipped away at their damage enough to cut them down within a few turns.  Even with that, the matches are all slow, becoming this war of attrition over the span of five or ten minutes that feels unnecessarily long.  The gathering of new monsters is a neat twist, but because it takes little effort beyond finishing battles, feels like it’s lacking something more active to do with them.  The exploration of the map is a nice deviation from the top down perspective of most RPGs, but the spaces feel largely empty without the typical smattering of enemies that are strewn across them, and the backtracking required in this case feels like a chore when having to confront yet another team of wild familiars.

I like Monster Sanctuary for what it tries to accomplish, I just wish I liked the execution as much as the concept.  I could see the threads of its attempt weaving into a better cohesive whole, but instead each different ingredient feels incomplete or misses the mark of what makes each genre it pulls from so compelling.  There’s still fun to be had if setting expectations right and wanting a unique twist that is no muss, no fuss, but I was hoping for more that Monster Sanctuary wasn’t quite there to give.

I've been picking away at Hollow Knight.  It's beautiful, the combat is sound, the exploration is good, and the little bread crumbs of lore are the perfect amount to be mysterious without being opaque. 

I should have played this game sooner.

TalkBack / John Wick Hex (Switch) Review
« on: December 04, 2020, 09:14:58 AM »

The Baba Yaga’s debut game is a tactical ballet of murder.

In 2014, Keanu Reeve’s movie career was revitalized with the release of John Wick, a super stylish, fast-paced action movie where the titular character exacts revenge on his former co-workers (a murderer’s row of assassins) for their part in killing his dog (the last gift to him from his deceased wife).  While this has spawned a trilogy of movies, John Wick Hex is the first attempt to translate the action into a video game.  Having released a year ago for PC and mobile, the strategy game has now made its way to the Nintendo Switch.

While on its face translating the high octane movies to a strategy genre seems like a bad fit, the end result is surprisingly sound.  Each set of levels is like a movie sequence, broken up into several scenes of that locale.  A level puts you at the start, with small dots on the floor indicating the move spaces.  Movement pauses each time an enemy gets in your line of sight, at which time options become available like shooting your gun, throwing it, performing melee or takedown attempts if close enough, or taking other tactical actions like trying to evade attempted attacks.  Each action has an assigned success rate determined by how far away you are from the enemy or if they’re behind obstacles.  

Rather than explicit turns, the order of operations is dictated by a timeline system shown above the action.  Selecting movement spaces, shooting a gun, rolling out of danger—these all will be previewed before making a decision, with enemies in range also showing in that preview where their turns will land.  Want to take a surefire shot but the enemy will get to you first?  Better look at your health and see if you can withstand the damage to make that trade.  Have several enemies coming at you?  Better consider which one to approach first and make a plan before executing it.  

The end result is a string of dynamic action sequences playing-out on the board.  In some parts I was able to slowly and methodically pick off grunts one-by-one.  Other times I found myself surrounded, turning the events into an improvisational effort of shooting one person, getting close enough to the other to take them down, stunning them long enough to throw my gun with no ammo left at a third, picking up a stray gun, and taking the finishing shot on the person I took down earlier.  There’s some really fantastic moments that feel like huge victories when you pull them off.

Once a level is completed, you can see a replay before moving onto the next one.  In theory, it works like Superhot, taking these disjointed moves and attempting to piece them together to make it look like a choreographed, fluid sequence.  In practice, while the turns are put together, the replay still feels stunted.  Each turn is still very visibly seen as a separate piece, with pauses that seem comical in the perspective of an action sequence.  It’s a neat idea that doesn’t quite flow as seamlessly as you’d like; I really wanted to see my completions put together as a slick action sequence, but this isn’t it.  

The tone and look are true to the form of the John Wick movies.  Lots of techno music that thumps in the background.  The animated style is simple but effective, with lots of neon interspersed throughout as trim to a largely purple and black backdrop.  It can become kind of samey through the course of the experience, but it’s a minor quibble that does not detract from it.  Another small complaint I have is that the story is throw-away to the point that I have a hard time recalling an overarching narrative looking back on it, but the narrative of the first movie was pretty unremarkable as well.

John Wick Hex is an example of what can be done when someone approaches a movie-based game from an outside-the-box perspective, taking an action movie more naturally at home in that type of game genre and molding it wonderfully to a more methodical, tactical experience.  Small nicks like the imperfect replay system or underwhelming story are insignificant in the face of just how satisfying it feels to embody Baba Yaga, and it’s a laudable effort that I hope gets reiterated and refined in a potential sequel.

TalkBack / Doom Eternal Interview with Panic Button Games
« on: November 30, 2020, 07:12:00 AM »

We were given the opportunity to speak with Cody Nicewarner (Senior Producer) and Travis Archer (Lead Engineer) of Panic Button Games to speak about their work on the Switch version of Doom Eternal and collaborating with id Software.

Nintendo World Report (NWR):  In working on Doom Eternal, how does the Switch port compare to the original ?

Travis:  It’s comparable in terms of the end result, if you’re talking in terms of that.  In terms of the development process, it’s very different.  For one thing, we started working on Doom 2016 when it was a finished product with multiple post-launch patches and performance & bug fix updates, whereas with this project we started working with it early on.  So the game was still in development, there were things still being finalized about the final product, there were features that still looked at whether or not they wanted it put in the game.  Porting a game like that is kind of like trying to hit a moving target, so it’s a very different experience.  So we were involved a lot earlier, which was great. It wasn't just that it added challenges, but also gave us an opportunity to get involved early on, and offer feedback in terms of making features or systems play nice with the Switch.  Also gave us an opportunity to get their input and advice on things early on in terms of the right clean way to support a feature.  It’s a bit different when you’re working in a post-launch product - you’re kind of in a vacuum where you can make any change you want within reason because it doesn’t affect anyone else. But we were working with them, so changes we made could affect other platforms - bugs could be introduced that we caused.  So very different process.

NWR: It wasn’t developed quite in tandem with other console versions, correct?

Travis: Yeah, it was intended to be as much as possible in tandem, but we handled all the development effort for Switch.  What that means primarily is that the art was developed for a much higher spec platform than Switch.  Think about the bulk of the work that goes into making a title these days - a lot of it is the art.  And that art is designed for high end PC and consoles.  So we were responsible for taking that art and making it work on the Switch.

NWR: You had mentioned before that the work you were doing on Switch could potentially affect the PS4 and Xbox one versions.  Do you have any examples of that?

Travis: I mostly mean in terms of introducing bugs, since we were working in a shared environment.

NWR: Are you able to share any details about target resolution ranges for docked and handheld?

Travis: I can’t be precise because it varies so much, but I can tell you that it’s comparable to our previous titles with Doom 2016 and Wolfenstein 2 being the most obvious examples there.  We’re trying to achieve the same performance despite a much higher quality bar, and so that was a big challenge, but that was kind of our goal  - it has to be as good as the other titles despite the increased complexity.

NWR: I know that Doom Eternal was originally planned on being released at the same time as the other console versions.  Do you mind elaborating on how and why that slipped?

Travis: So basically as I mentioned, the quality bar was much higher.  Doom Eternal is targeting 2020 PC builds and really was a late generation title for the other consoles.  This is a lot of experience under your belt for those consoles and you’re learning to get the most out of those in terms of performance.  So the bar was a lot higher and the challenge of getting that ot fit on the Switch was commensurate with that.

Cody: It was one of the most ambitious projects they’ve worked on over at id, and making a faithful translation of that to the Switch in and of itself was a challenge.  We had a kickoff at the beginning of this project and we knew that it was going to be challenging, but we knew that with our previous experience on id Tech 6, taking id tech 7 in consideration that we could achieve a faithful translation.  At the end of the day we’re happy with it, and excited to get it into Nintendo Switch user’s hands.  

NWR: What were you able to learn from Doom 2016 development to build upon for Doom Eternal

Cody: So from production standpoint, there’s really the human element that went into and continues to go into Doom Eternal.  That’s really building and fostering the relationship with the devs at id software.  They have been instrumental through the entire process of getting Doom Eternal on the Switch.  That collaboration started early.  There were benefits from their team giving us guidance and support.  On the other hand, there’s guidance and support we gave them to help all the platforms.  From a human element, having worked with them previously to establish those relationships we knew where the domain experts were, had worked with them previously and had the confidence and familiarity with one another that we could get that help and support we needed.  And I’ll let Travis talk more about the tech side.  

Travis: And from the technical perspective, id tech 7 is a huge leap forward from id tech 6 and id tech 6.5, but there’s a lot of core things that are similar or the same.  So we were able to build on our previous knowledge and a lot of the changes and optimizations that we applied for Doom 2016 and Wolfenstein 2 did apply.  Not all of them, but we’re able to bring forward a lot of our tricks that we had learned for optimizing id tech for Switch.  We kind of learned as we went how to make id tech 7 work well on the Switch, because there were a lot of new features and new ways of doing things that we had to adjust for.  So it was definitely a help, but because the quality bar was so high, all the optimizations we carried forward with us gave us a starting point where we were kind of like starting back at square one.  Ok, we threw all our optimizations in and the title is running about the way it was before we had any optimizations on Doom 2016, so where do we go from here?  The big bulk of our effort was trying to find little places we could improve performance in addition to all of those previous changes.  But yeah, it was a big benefit to having worked with them before for sure.

NWR: Just for the layman like me, could you define id tech?

Travis: Sure, so id tech is the engine that id products run on, and it goes back to the original Doom and Wolfenstein.  There have been various iterations over time.  Doom 2016 ran on id tech 6, Wofenstein 2 was sort of informally id tech 6.5 which included some further enhancements for that title, which despite being developed by Machine Games it was in collaboration with id itself.  And so this new version of id tech 7 is the next gen engine, ready for high end PCs with tons of CPU cores and taking advantage of all new hardware features.  

NWR: What kind of experience did you gain working with id in trying to develop these ports?

Travis: They’re a very talented group of developers, some of the best and brightest of the industry.  Have a ton of experience, a wealth of knowledge they could draw upon.  So even though they may not be experienced with the Switch itself, we were able to talk about features and the engine itself and get their perspective on “here’s why we do things for this platform” and just peel it all back to see what was necessary and what could be best changed.  It’s a lot.  It’s hard not to be too technical so i’m kind of hedging my words.

Cody: Yeah, I think it kind of goes back to the layman framing on the previous question, it’s looking at just pulled back - they wrote id tech, they’re the domain experts, and when Travis says that they’re sharp minds, these are incredible minds, and to have them at our disposal for guidance for optimizations is really priceless, so they’ve absolutely contributed and been there along our side this entire process.

NWR: Doom 2016 was arguably the first of now many impossible ports we've seen come to Switch - stuff you wouldn’t expect could be run on it. Are there games you'd personally like to bring to Switch, or at least see?

Travis: There are definitely a lot of games I would love to personally play on the Switch.  Any game I can play handheld and take on the go with me is good.  I don’t think we have anything in particular to talk about today with that.

NWR: Ok, what would you personally want to play?

Travis: Man, I mean, honestly other Bethesda titles, if I’m going to plug my own desires. (laughter)

NWR: We’ve seen the introduction of game streaming on Switch - most recently with Control.  How does that affect the scope of what kind of project Panic Button would be working on?

Cody: I think it’s an interesting tech.  I think it’s young and that there’s a place and audience for it, but doesn’t necessarily change anything on our horizon.  We’re going to continue taking on challenging projects to get these on the hardware and for people to be able to use offline and when they want to.  I think that’s one of the greatest things about the Nintendo Switch - you have the ability to take it and go off the grid, so we’re going to continue doing what we do.  

NWR: Yeah, and I don’t know about you guys, but my ISP is miserable.

Travis: Work from home probably isn’t helping that (laughter)

NWR: Speaking of that, how has your experience been working from home since COVID hit?

Cody: It’s been a challenge, its definitely been a surprise to us amongst anyone else collectively that's challenged with this problem.  Just from the basic level getting infrastructure at home set-up and all the correct permissions, etc.  Took time trying to figure out how long we’d be doing this for.  And then as it started going wider and realized it’s not going away as quickly as we hoped, we had to adapt and be agile to the process of day-to-day.  We are a small team at Panic Button and we’re in an open office, so the benefit that we do get from being in a layout like that is we have immediate access to all disciplines on a project.  So if we need to escalate something we can go grab them in person and say “hey, look at this”.  When that’s taken away from you, you kind of rely on new channels of communication and getting used to those processes at a very fundamental level has had its effect on our team as well as I'd expect on other teams doing game development.  So we’re not necessarily unique, we just had to look athte problems and challenges and adopt to them

NWR: I guess we should consider ourselves fortunate that we have the option to work from home.

Cody: Absolutely, at the end of the day it was a decision our stakeholders took on pretty early to keep the safety of our employees as the paramount importance, and have just had to be real about how to face those challenges.  We’re very fortunate and at the end of the day, we’re able to wrap up a project like Doom Eternal on the Switch and get it out during one of the crazies years of our lives, and we’re excited and hopefully people stay indoors and play this game and continue to be safe through the holidays

NWR: How Do you think the release of Xbox Series X and PS5 will affect what’s feasible to be ported to Switch?

Cody: It depends.  It depends on the developer.  There’s going to be developers who are going to push the bleeding edge and only focus on that.  There’s other developers who are going to look at all the ecosystems and have those as a targeted platforms.  It’s really up to the developer and then if we’re going to continue working on Nintendo Switch as collaborative projects and we’re willing and open to the challenge.  At the end of the day it’s really up to the people creating the content and what they want to target.  

Travis: Yep, and keep in mind that as long as developers are still making an Xbox one or PlayStation 4 version of their game, they’re not going to be able to completely rely on ray tracing as their core rendering, so as long as there's a more traditional version of the game, that version will be easier to port.  Obviously it becomes a real challenge when you’re porting a game that only supports ray tracing.

NWR: Wait, you’re suggesting ray tracing can’t come to Switch?

Travis: It’d be a challenge (laughter)

NWR:  As we wrap up, what’s your favorite Doom game?

Travis: It’s an easy one for me - Doom Eternal.  Doom 2016 was my favorite Doom game, but as Cody mentioned we were involved in the early process and got to see their vision for the game early on, and we were in love with the gameplay changes, but also the scope - they really expanded the lore and content universe as it were, and that part was also really exciting to us and still is.  And so for me that’s what makes it my favorite game - they took everything I liked about it and then they made it even better and expanded on it, and you’re still seeing that with the release of ancient gods.  

Cody: Yeah that’s an interesting one because, if I tap into the nostalgia side of my psyche, I could remember as a kid just booting up the original Doom and being blown away and fascinated by this thing in front of me.  So that should not be ignored - it’s just kind of in my DNA in some way.  But the experience of Doom 2016 and building up on that for Doom Eternal, it’s really a toss up between those two.  I don’t think I could play one without the other because Doom Eternal did build off an incredible design, the action is incredible and Doom Eternal really just brought it to 11 with some new mechanics and options for players.  I think the modern day experience that it brings is crazy - it's fast, kind of taps into all your high level FPS player desires, and really leaves some options open to the player for customization.  So I would say yeah, the current iteration is for sure one of my best go-tos for FPS.

TalkBack / Serious Sam Collection (Switch) Review
« on: November 25, 2020, 07:03:22 AM »

There are seriously better options to get your shooting fix.

As a boy, I cut my teeth on Doom.  After that, the fun shooting with crass mannerisms of Duke Nukem 3D was alluring, if tawdry.  A serious gap in my PC first-person shooter experience was Serious Sam, which is cut from the same cloth as those other classics.  In this series, Sam “Serious” Stone takes a Terminator-like trip back in time to lead the resistance against an imposing alien force.

This collection comes with three separate titles—Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter, Serious Sam HD: The Second Encounter, and Serious Sam 3: BFE.  The first two are largely the same FPS experience, just in different locales.  The camera is free roaming, the movement is zippy, and the shooting is decent, with weapons that feel distinct.  Selecting weapons is done via a radial menu, which can be a bit cumbersome in more frantic moments.  Levels vary from Egyptian catacombs to underground sewers and jungles.  The “HD” in the first two titles is really stretching the meaning of the term.  Character models are chunky like those on Nintendo 64, and textures in the background are flat, but I will admit they are at least clean looking—no fuzziness to be found.

While the core gameplay in the first two games is sound, it’s the choices around them that make them show their age.  Inexplicably, the spawn points seem tied to picking up health or shield items.  At first, I thought it was completely random, but it became more evident as I played.  Enemies come in waves of dozens at a time in some spots, which can be overwhelming and borderline unmanageable unless you can find a bottleneck spot to run them through.  While there are some unique enemies such as kamikaze bombers that scream as they run towards you, giant skeleton-like creatures, and alien beings, there are a handful that look like they’ve just copied Doom’s homework with a few minor alterations.  Strangely enough, the larger creatures would get stuck on arches between rooms, inadvertently making them easy fodder.

Serious Sam 3: BFE is where the series jumps into what I’d consider the group of more modern shooters.  Graphics are cleaner and more well defined, with dynamic lighting that provides gradients of shade that didn’t exist in the other ones.  Dialogue, while excessively cheesy, fits in a narrative arc and series of events that feels more scripted.  Enemy spawning feels more directed by moving through different sections of the level rather than the inexplicably chosen spawn points of its predecessors.  One way it fails comparably is its framerate—tons of slowdown in the midst of action and unexplainable stuttering/hitching at moments where there’s nothing apparent that’d cause it.  The menu settings have an option to choose between fidelity and stability, but changing it didn’t remedy the issue.

Across the entire spectrum of games, there are some nagging flaws that really mar the experience.  It was nice of the development team to include online cooperative and versus modes, but there is no population to matchmake with whatsoever.  A healthy number of online multiplayer options are present here, but there are occasional music cues that start in moments of great battles taking place, and it’s jarring how it just starts and stops abruptly without any natural phase in and phase out.  The same sounds span the entire trilogy—Sam makes the same grunting noises when he jumps or melee attacks and the enemies make the same sound verbatim.  Not re-recorded, not altered, literally the same audio.  Finally, Sam’s dialogue is almost groan inducing.  It’s like they tried to tone down Duke Nukem’s writing to a PG-13 rating, but it almost feels more try-hard than even that with how it’s “tough guy without the profanity.”  

The Serious Sam Collection undeniably has a lot of content, but the purchase decision will hinge on what fondness you have for it.  This is likely an easy buy for the devotees or those who hold nostalgia for it, but as a first timer the flaws inherent in game design, technical performance, and audio design make the experience for me death by a thousand cuts.  The Switch has better classic shooters and many well-made homages to them; seek out those before you settle for this.

TalkBack / Tropico 6 (Switch) Review
« on: November 17, 2020, 06:21:08 AM »

Autocrat Simulator 2020

I’ve been a city building and management sim devotee for quite some time, cutting my teeth on SimCity and Civilization 2 ages ago.  Somehow, in spite of there being half a dozen entries, Tropico 6, the latest in the series, is my first foray into the Banana Republic development sim.  There’s always a power fantasy inherent in acting as a solo operator in developing a population, but the allure of also being a despot leader of a small island nation-state was a wrinkle I was eager to explore.

There are three primary game modes: Tutorial, Missions, and Sandbox.  The tutorial is pretty robust, with five total chapters that give a step-by-step instruction of how to interface with the game as well as describing the different systems.  Missions are individual scenarios with specific win conditions that must be met before moving onto the next.  While these missions are a nice way to chunk small slivers of the game into bite-sized pieces, it isn’t personally the way I like to play my sims.  Sandbox is the real meat of Tropico to me, an open-ended, build-your-own island nation where I could be the architect of my own flourishing nation or failed state.

As Governor of a colony under the crown’s control, you must steward your small colony from revolution to modern times, with each period having preconditions that must be met prior to progressing to the next era.  At the start, you’re weighing allegiances with the crown who controls how long you have an edict to rule, and revolutionaries that seek to overthrow the crown and elect you as el Presidente!  The crown’s tasks that allow extensions to your rule typically involve building revenue generators such as mines, plantations, or other buildings that extract resources that you can export on trade routes to profit the empire.  Revolutionary tasks tend to focus on improving the general welfare of the people with buildings like churches, taverns, or other areas of leisure.  

There is this great contrast where the land real estate isn’t all that great on your island, but you can tweak inputs at a pretty granular level.  Each facility has individual citizens listed at buildings that employ them, of which you can adjust a work mode between a level work week or more taskmaster settings that might improve output at the cost of worker health, and amend the place’s budget, which affects not only the cost of upkeeping it but also wages and job satisfaction.  You can go into even more specifics by selecting individual employees, and this gives you options like firing them and replacing with immigrant workers, bribing them, assassinating them, arranging an “accident in the workplace”, arrest, or even institutionalizing them if an asylum is built.  

Tropico 6’s port to Switch has been mostly successful in making it a solid option for all your tropical machinations.  The controls, namely, are mostly positive.  Most of the options like constructing buildings, creating trade routes, viewing the almanac that shows various metrics of success, among others, are tied to a radial menu that’s easy to navigate.  There’s a nice and easy grid to follow when placing down buildings or roads.  It all feels very intuitive; the only minor gripe I have is the default cursor moves a bit too quickly for my tastes, but thankfully that is one of several options that can be tweaked.  Additionally, this port undeniably has taken a hit graphically from its PC and other console counterparts.  It’s a worthy trade-off in my opinion, but fair warning if having the sharpest visuals is important to you.

Tropico 6’s port to the Switch is a full-sized city building and resource management sim in the palm of your hand, which is the only way I want to play this genre anymore.  The relatively quaint scope in comparison to the Civs of the world and the focus on more micro inputs to influence your nation is refreshing, and what compromises were necessary to make it here were well worth it.

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